Politics & Government

Government meetings begin with prayer. Should they? Or should they be more diverse?

Rabbi's prayer at Commission meeting

Rabbi Judah Kogen of the Hebrew Congregation gave the invocation at 12/13 at the County Commission meeting. The invocation is given at the beginning of every Sedgwick County Commission meeting and every Wichita City Council meeting. Most of the in
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Rabbi Judah Kogen of the Hebrew Congregation gave the invocation at 12/13 at the County Commission meeting. The invocation is given at the beginning of every Sedgwick County Commission meeting and every Wichita City Council meeting. Most of the in

The prayer was for brotherhood, peace, courage and guidance — not dissimilar from the dozens of other prayers given before Sedgwick County Commission meetings this year.

There was one key difference, however: The prayer was given by a Jewish rabbi, the only non-Christian to have led the county commission invocation in 2017.

“I would like to see it (the prayer) completely done away with,” said Monica Marks, who has been attending County Commission meetings to oppose the possible location of a Tyson plant in Sedgwick County. “There is no fix besides completely doing away with it or representing every religion in town, Muslim, atheist, Wiccan, pagan.”

The invocation, which is usually a prayer, is a fixed part of both county commission and Wichita City Council meetings.

It’s also a practice that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014.

However, some, like Marks, say the prayer isn’t appropriate before a government meeting. They say it can be too long, too political and, more often than not, exclusively Christian.

Christian prayers

Marks said the first time she went to a county commission meeting, she sat in the front row. When the prayer by a Christian pastor began and the county clerk invited people to stand, Marks stood even though she didn’t want to.

“It seemed like it would draw negative attention if I didn’t, but I was just really surprised and taken aback by how long it is,” she said. Since then, Marks has sat in the back of the room.

Until Dec. 13, when Rabbi Judah Kogen of Hebrew Congregation spoke, Marks had only heard Christian prayers.

In 2017, all invocators scheduled at the county commission were Christian except Kogen.

Christian speakers ranged from Methodists, Lutherans and Baptists to speakers from Unity Church, a denomination that teaches what it calls “practical Christianity” and that the universal presence of creative energy (or God) is within everyone. In 2016, the numbers were the same: All Christian with the exception of one Jewish rabbi.

For city council, 2016 was a more diverse year. The schedule included a priest from the Southwind Sangha Soto Zen Center, a member of the Baha’i faith and someone from the Hindu Temple of Greater Wichita. The rest of the scheduled invocations came from Christian groups, as did all of the invocations scheduled for 2017.

Religious makeup

Dave Unruh, chairman of the county commission, said he’s not sure why the practice of having an invocation was started.

There is an interest in having more diverse prayers, he said, but the majority of the county is Christian, meaning the majority of the prayers will be Christian.

The U.S. Supreme Court considered the religious makeup of an area when it ruled 5-4 in 2014 that legislative bodies can begin their meetings with prayer, even prayers that favor a specific religion.

The decision said that “the Christian identity of most of the prayers given reflected the predominantly Christian character of the town’s congregations.”

Like the town of Greece, New York, that won the Supreme Court ruling, Sedgwick County does not preview the content of any prayer during the invocation.

“I think that prayer sets a great tone and allows us to reflect on the fact that we are here to serve others and the fact that God has placed us in these positions and that we have an awesome responsibility,” said Commissioner Michael O’Donnell.

Diversity of faiths

The invocation policy for Sedgwick County states that the county must compile a list of religious institutions “with an established presence in the county” from the Yellow Pages and requests of specific groups. Around Dec. 1 of each year, the county is to mail an invitation to the leader of each group on the list. The invitation is to be extended to “all religious groups in the county” and “express the county’s respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths.” Those who respond are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.

For city council invocations, employees periodically contact representatives of various faiths in the community and offer them the chance to give the invocation. Anyone interested in giving the invocation at a city council meeting is also invited to contact Jo Hensley at 268-4331.

Hussam Madi, spokesperson for the Islamic Society of Wichita, said the society has given the invocation several times at city council meetings. Those included meetings in 2015, 2014 and 2013.

However, he said representatives from the Islamic Society have not been invited to give the invocation at county commission meetings.

The county’s list of religious institutions that it invites, which was provided to The Eagle, only included Christian and Jewish groups. The county said it would be glad to include other institutions if they are available.

“I’m not sure why we’re just dropped off the list or overlooked,” Madi said, adding that the society would be glad to give the invocation.

Alex Simmons, president of the atheist and agnostic group Wichita Oasis, said the group has not received an invitation, although she knew they would be allowed to give an invocation. Wichita Oasis was formed in January.

Rabbi Michael Davis of Congregation Emanu-El said he’s been invited to give the invocation several times at commission meetings, but the time of day doesn’t generally work well for him. He did attend a meeting once to give the invocation, but said a commissioner had invited someone else to give it rather than following standard procedure.

“Wichita is one of the most diverse cities in the Midwest,” Davis said. “It is important that our leaders hear a variety of voices. Hispanic voices and African-American voices; Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i and other religious voices; traditional and progressive voices. We each have our priorities, and they need to hear those priorities.”

Content of prayer

Marks said she’s timed some of the prayers and found that at least one was about five minutes long.

Recent Christian invocations have included praying for a moral revival, praying for God’s guidance and saying that God both deposes and sets up county commissioners (a paraphrase of a prayer in Daniel 2).

When she posted about the prayers on her personal Facebook page, Marks received about 100 comments, many agreeing with her.

Even though she attends church and believes in the power of prayer, Dana St. Clair agreed with Marks that prayer isn’t appropriate before a government meeting, particularly when there are so many more Christian speakers.

“I don’t think it’s right to have a prayer that represents your personal religious beliefs in a group of people that may not share those same beliefs,” St. Blair said. “You can’t pray in school, so why is it OK to pray at a government meeting?”

Unruh said that while the county can’t preview or censor the content of an invocation, it would be appropriate to give general guidelines, perhaps telling people to keep the invocations relatively brief and nonpolitical. He estimates most prayers are between one and three minutes long.

Mayor Jeff Longwell said he appreciates the prayers before city council meetings. Like the county, the city has reached out to a variety of groups, he said, but invocations reflect that Christians make up the majority of the community.

“I think it provides us a great moment to pause and reflect before we start in the business of the day,” Longwell said.

As for people who don’t think there should be prayer before a government meeting at all?

“I’ll pray for them,” Longwell said.

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess